Daily Archives: October 8, 2006

Michael McKeon Gets the Last Word, Tomorrow!

Michael has just informed me that he will be able to offer us his closing comments tomorrow. That will mark the end of our first Collective Reading, which I think has worked out very well. We eagerly anticipate his final remarks.

In the meantime, we’ll entertain whatever new topics that our contributors offer up.

Thanks, and best wishes,

Dave Mazella


McKeon on the Difference between Post-Structuralist and Marxist Attitudes towards the Hermeneutic Circle

[Once again, half of Michael’s posted comments in our exchange were consumed by cyber-gremlins today, so I have reunited them and put them up here for easier reading–DM]


Although I can see there may be some basic disagreements between us about historical method, I’ll first try to be clearer about what my method aims to do.

By the distinction between seeing the past in its own terms and seeing it in terms other than its own I mean something simpler–more methodological or structural and less epistemologically-“truth” oriented–than you take me to mean. For me the distinction doesn’t entail opposing determinate contents–the initial categories are epistemologically-speaking arbitrary–but is rather the engine that sets in motion the process of understanding by which the discovery of determinate contents will be achieved. That motion is dialectical in the sense that the nature of the “internal” and “external” viewpoints it works with is defined by an interaction, like that between particular facts or bits of evidence and a general hypothesis, whereby the two enter into a back-and-forth process of reciprocal revision until a point is reached at which what seems a satisfactory correspondence between the two has been found–i.e., at which the hypothesis seems adequately responsive to the data and the data seem adequately contained by the hypothesis.

This isn’t to “idealize” the act of historical understanding but to acknowledge its possibility, and to suggest a “realistic” way of going about it. By the criteria of the “satisfactory” and the “adequate” I mean the sorts of probabilistic standards that govern empirical analysis, although the “rules of evidence” that apply in this sort of study are more like those that operate in a court of law than like those involved in scientific method. The problem I have with poststructuralism in this regard is that the absoluteness of its epistemological skepticism, at least on paper, makes this kind of judgment impossible. If the choice is between either the accessibility or the inaccessibility of the past, the choice becomes a dichotomous opposition between absolutes for neither of which methodological decisions about the adequacy of evidence to a particular hypothesis have any interest. This is the choice between the positivism of “a privileged access to the past” and “some fixed point of historical truth” on the one hand and the relativism or aestheticism of “valuable insights” on the other. If the value of insights is assessed rhetorically, i.e., by the degree to which they speak to or satisfy the needs or expectations of a contemporary audience, there’s no way of judging between the value of insights that, relatively speaking, are equally attuned to their respective publics. (Nor, to return to the defense of a “master narrative,” is there any middle ground where the epistemological value of taking into account a little evidence or a lot, or of doing it “well” or “badly,” might be assessed.)

If these were really the principles on which literary critics and historians operated, their investment in either activity would seem inexplicable. I include criticism here because I think reading a text is liable to the same sorts of epistemological caveats as is “reading” the past. Adducing a text’s “own” terms is no less problematic than adducing those of the past, yet the ambition to do this probabilistically–“privileged” not a priori but by virtue of the way one construes the meaning(s) of a text on the evidentiary basis of the language in which it’s written–is one we’re happy to shoulder, as teachers and writers, on a daily basis.

As I understand it, the difference between poststructuralist and Marxist method, at least on the theoretical level, can be expressed as the difference between two distinct attitudes toward the hermeneutic circle. To analyze the nature of the parts on the basis of our knowledge of the whole presupposes a knowledge of the parts as that which gives the whole its wholeness; to begin at the level of the parts presupposes a knowledge of the whole on the basis of which their partial nature is predicated. For poststructuralist theory, this is a contradiction that precludes knowledge. For Marxist theory it’s a contradiction–between parts and whole, between own terms and other terms, between interpretation and explanation–that inaugurates the process of coming to knowledge.

Michael McKeon

Why Lewis and Clark Matter

I don’t mean to interrupt the wonderful conversation here about British print culture and McKeon, but I did want to respond to this Slate article condemning the current interest in Lewis and Clark.

David Plotz is absolutely right to say that Lewis and Clark’s travels are mythologized, wrongly, as a narrative of the great American expansion project. Anyone who has read the journals has felt the deep sense of dread and unmitigated failure. (As my friend Brooks Hefner is fond of saying, “All early American narratives are about unmitigated failure.”) But why is that a reason to turn away from them?

As Jim Chevallier mentioned in his first post here, there is an exhilarating pleasure to be had in examining the early modern, that of “tugging at Santa Claus’ beard to see if it is real.” I fear that while conservative mythologies of the Founding Fathers and expansion narratives seek to canonize these narratives for the purpose of erasing the failures of the birth of the Republic, the response of those who resist the mythologies is to forget them altogether.

As a scholar, I’ve been increasingly drawn to Lewis and Clark, Franklin, and Jefferson, because to read them is to find those mythologies erased before your eyes. Tugging at the beard of the early Republic reveals a very human and conflicted face. As much as Jefferson is celebrated as a historical figure, reading Notes on the State of Virginia uncovers the conflicts between his devotion to American freedom and his racism, between his desire for expansion and his deeply troubled view of the Indian nations.

Shouldn’t the United States be looking at these narratives for what they are? Is it not important for us to know our history of failure and internal ideological conflict? I am shocked by how few Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, have actually read the words of the people they idolize or attack in the name of current political argument. Is it that we are afraid to find that those who constructed our nation were, like all human beings, great and terrible at once, and that this is our legacy?

The Long Eighteenth says Good-bye to the Secret History

As you’ll see, I’m letting Michael McKeon have the final word (see above).

Nonetheless, I’d like to personally thank everyone involved with this first Collective Reading: Carrie Shanafelt, who made this blog possible with her time and energy, and who kicked off discussion with the first post; Tita Chico, Carrie Hintz, and Laura Rosenthal, and most of all Michael McKeon, who submitted himself and his book to a grueling, week-long process of cyber-questioning, despite technical glitches and truncated posts. I do hope that all of you continue to check in with us from time to time. The Long Eighteenth will always welcome your suggestions and contributions. Please stay in touch.

Some of my students have told me they were following our exchanges, and I’m hoping that those who listened in on the discussion will soon start posting their own comments, observations, and queries on everything “Long Eighteenth.” As you can see from last week’s discussion, we do not bite (even while debating method).

Please let us know your ideas for the next collective reading, either in terms of books or other kinds of events. If you or your friends want to propose some new type of event, maybe a forum on a particular topic, or something entirely new, please post it to the list or contact me offlist at dmazella@uh.edu. We’re also eager to hear any suggestions you might have about improving the format of our Collective Readings.

Michael Warner once remarked that a modern “public” is by definition an address to strangers, an address to a group of people that cannot be known in advance. A public is “more than a list of one’s friends,” but is instead a group of strangers who come together into a “public” by virtue of their participation (74). I have been very happy to find the names of some old friends on this blog; but I am also pleased to find here some scholars whose work I look forward to learning about in the future. Thanks to all of you for helping us come together around this book.

Best wishes,

David Mazella

A Tale of Two Michaels: McKeon and Warner on the Virtuality of the Public

Since this is the final day of discussion, I wanted to make sure we responded to at least one of Michael’s questions, so I decided to focus on the Secret History’s relation to another book that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the past year: Michael Warner’s Public and Counterpublic (Zone, 2002). As I was reading Michael’s book, I found myself thinking a lot about Warner’s, and, sure enough, I saw Warner’s book acknowledged at some key points of discussion.

As Carrie Shanafelt pointed out on the first day of discussion, “the special thing about the conceptualization of public discourse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that, suddenly, it becomes one of the main explicit concerns of writers and other public figures.” After quoting McKeon’s reference to Charles Taylor and the “social imaginary” on p. 107, she gives an excellent description of how this social imaginary coalesced:

As any of us working in the long eighteenth century are aware, almost every author of the period has passages explicitly describing, defending, and even performatively constructing a particular relationship between the public and the private selves of the author, or even between the private and public selves of the reader. The text itself self-consciously serves as a mediator between those selves, both creating a public community for discourse through the publicity of publication and offering a subject for private contemplation.

Carrie has noted the important organizing effect of texts in these virtual spaces of community and solitude, an organizing effect that McKeon has characteristically aligned with two other effects of modernity: the emergent division of knowledge that likewise organizes generals and particulars, as well as the modern marketplace, which “conceives value to be a general and homogeneous category available through the equalization of particular and distinct commodities” (106).

Though Warner is not making a historical argument in the manner of McKeon, McKeon’s point about the role of the marketplace as a model for the new, virtual social and communicative relations of modernity adds an important, causal piece of the Big Picture (as Laura would call it) that Warner discusses chiefly in contemporary contexts. McKeon goes on to relate these features of epistemological “disembedding” to the characteristic features of modernity:

These basic features of features of the modern social imaginary–virtuality, self-constitution, reflexivity, –are germane to the fundamental quality of modern socioeconomic and cultural relations, the fact that they are relatively disembodied, mediated rather than face to face, disembedded from the substratum of physical presence and practice. Although in differing ways, modern social relations–the social contract, market exchange, public opinion–are normatively impersonal relations between “strangers” that who have no actual experience of one another (107).

For this statement, McKeon cites a number of sources, including Warner’s book, which includes this interesting passage:

The expansive force of these [modern] cultural forms [nation or public or market] cannot be understood apart from the way they make stranger relationality normative, reshaping the most intimate dimensions of subjectivity around co-membership, with indefinite persons in a context of routine action. The development of forms that mediate the intimate theater of stranger relationality must surely be one of the most significant dimensions of modern history, though the story of this transformation in the meaning of strangers has been told only in fragments. It is hard to imagine such abstract modes of being as rights-bearing personhood, species being, and sexuality, for example, without forms that give concrete shape to the interactivity of those who have no idea with whom they interact (76).

What we owe to McKeon, and what I am grateful to Laura for pointing out as well, is the recognition of how much these modern cultural forms of epistemological “disembedding” and virtual, “disembodied” interactions owe to the emergence of the modern marketplace, as an engine of historical change, as an epistemological model, but also as a model of social relations. And one of the key places where we see this virtuality elaborated is in the distinction between actual and concrete particularity, and the emergent doctrines of realism and the aesthetic (109).